Delivering sustainably optimized meal kit packaging

Rick Lingle in Retail Packaging on February 14, 2019

Meal kits can deliver fresh foods that look good, taste good and are sustainably and tastefully packaged and protected for home delivery.

It is possible for meal kits to deliver an exciting unboxing experience for ecommerce food shoppers and do so using sustainably optimized packaging, claims Carol Zweep, manager of packaging, NSF Canada. Zweep shared her insights and personal experiences with a packed and attentive audience at a conference session during PackEx Montreal last November, an event managed by Packaging Digest parent company Informa.

“Meal kits are convenient for consumers, but do they contribute to packaging waste?” she asked attendees before unpacking the topic in a presentation that included photos of her own meal kit experiences (shown) for a large crowd gathered at Center Stage.

While her remarks were tailored to a predominantly Canadian audience, Zweep provides freshly prepared input for Packaging Digest readers everywhere in this Q&A.

What are the drivers and trends in the meal kits market?

Zweep: Meal kits have become a popular on-line purchase for consumers. According to a report from Packaged Facts, Meal Kits Delivery Services in the U.S., 2nd Edition in 2017, the meal kits market was worth $5 billion.

With busy schedules, the meal kit is convenient. There is no meal planning required, no in-store ingredient shopping required and all ingredients are fresh, pre-measured and in some cases pre-cut.

Meal kits saves time but also saves money compared to eating out. New experiences are offered for these meals, where one can select exotic, ethnic meals. Meals can also be selected to fit your preference or lifestyle i.e. vegetarian. The meal kits come with pictures and preparation instructions that make it fun to cook. And they are fun!

How can ecommerce meal kits be developed and designed to be as sustainable as possible?

Zweep: Proper meal kit packaging is important to prevent food spoilage and to ensure food safety. This entails packaging ingredients in plastic bags and jars that are placed in an insulated corrugate box with ice packs. On one hand, packaged portions means there are no leftovers or extraneous fresh ingredient that results in a decrease in food waste. However, the packaging can lead to additional costs and a negative impact on the environment.

There’s strong interest in reducing food waste…doesn’t this run contrary to having meals like this shipped?

Zweep: Food waste is a global issue. A study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN suggests that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. This amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. Food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain, from initial agricultural production down to household consumption. In the U.S., about 150,000 tons of food is thrown out by households each day. This accounts for 30% of daily calories available for consumption. (Plos One, 2018). The discarded food ends up in landfills and is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Packaging can play a large role in reducing food waste. For example, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and new packaging technologies such as active packaging—including oxygen and ethylene scavengers—can extend shelf life and reduce food waste.

According to the study How Packaging Contributes to Food Waste Prevention, proper packaging results in less greenhouse gas emissions. Although more packaging is used, less food is wasted leading to a lower overall carbon footprint.

Can you cite exemplary branded sustainable meal kit packaging?

Zweep: Meal kit makers acknowledge that packaging is a problem and are making efforts to address this issue with sustainable solutions.

For example, HelloFresh uses corrugated boxes made with recycled fibers and the boxes can be recycled. Their paper bags can also be recycled or composted. The ice packs they use are nontoxic and contain a salt solution can be reused or returned or safely poured down a kitchen drain and the plastic bags they are packaged in a recyclable. Also other plastic bottles and bags that are in a kit may be recycled (municipality dependent).

Lastly, the laminated corrugated insert panels used for insulation during shipment are made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified sustainable corrugated material and pulper-safe metallized film and are fully recyclable. [Ed. Note: In fact, the laminate material is supplied by Cascades].

The brand also includes a brochure with details about its sustainable practices printed on sustainable materials. HelloFresh has a sustainability statement on its website that states it is committed to reducing food and packaging waste using:

  • Pre-portioned meals to reduce food waste by 47%;
  • Direct sourcing to reduce supply chain energy, water and labor waste by up to 14%;
  • Accelerated supply chains keep food fresher than local stores;
  • Outer packaging by 30%.

Sakara Life is delivering meal kits in reusable cooler bags.

A Canadian based company, SPUD/Be Fresh, is using renewable plant-based bags, packets and containers that are recyclable or compostable. This company is also using cooler packs, freezer jackets and bins that are reusable.

What advice do you have for brands that are developing packaging for the commerce meal kits market?

Zweep: The main consideration for meal kit companies when developing packaging is to protect the contents. Under packaging can lead to physical damage, food spoilage (particularly in hot weather) and poor quality of the contents. Eliminating extraneous packaging and selecting sustainable packaging options are also important considerations. Sustainable packaging options include use of reusable cooler bags and ice packs, recyclable materials, renewable sources and recycled content

And when brands do use those options, they should promote consumer education through opportunities such as the How2Recycle labeling program from GreenBlue that increases material recovery (see How2Recycle label is growing—here’s who, why and how, published February 2019).

Final thoughts?

Zweep: The packaging industry is undertaking many sustainable initiatives to increasing material diversion from landfills. Recycling capture rates can be increased by promoting consumer education through informative labelling. Material recovery can be increased through novel package marking and sorting techniques. Diversion of packaging waste from land fill involves finding end markets for difficult to recycle materials such as flexible packaging. Emerging technologies that create energy from waste also diverts waste from landfills. Research continues in the development of bio-based packaging materials that are compostable.

For more information, visit NSF Canada.

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You’ll find a smorgasbord of packaging options at PackEx Toronto June 4-6, 2019, where you can search out fresh ideas in containers and design, evaluate the latest machinery and automation solutions and experience free education at Centre Stage. For more information, visit PackEx Toronto. ___________________________________________________________________________________

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